The Lewis Chessmen Winter North

This month saw the arrival in Aberdeen Art Gallery of The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked exhibition

“Probably made in Norway…Found on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland”

So the British Museum’s website prosaically introduces us to the Lewis Chessmen, or Uig Chessmen, a collection of 93 chess pieces intricately carved out of walrus ivory and whales’ teeth by three Vikings between 1150 and 1200 AD.  (Yes: three!)  The BM owns 82 of the 93 pieces which form this beautiful collection.  The other eleven are normally housed in the National Museum in Edinburgh, and a selection of just over 30 pieces from both museums is currently touring Scotland as part of the Unmasked exhibition. 

Unmasked began in Edinburgh in May 2010 and will travel to Shetland in January 2011 and before completing its Scottish tour in Stornoway from April to September of that year.

I’ve been walking around Edinburgh for the last six months or so with a notebook bearing the furtive coffee- (or maybe pint-) induced note-to-self: “Write something on the Lewis Chessmen”.  It didn’t happen; the exhibition came to Edinburgh, and then went, and the devil won the day.  Fortunately, I have intermittent occasion to travel to Aberdeen (well…), and when my girlfriend’s father asked me if I’d heard about this new Chessmen exhibition I couldn’t in good conscience say no.

In my ignorance I had expected a Mona Lisa-type scenario, an unsatisfying huddle around a single glass cabinet searing the eyes out of my head from all the reflected camera flashes.  Far from it, The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked is a beautifully curated experience.  In a darkened wing with standing room aplenty, visitors can move easily through the space.  The chessmen are displayed in numerous cabinets, occasionally contextualised beside other artefacts from the same period in Lewis such as broaches, swords, and tools – all grim pieces beside the curious beauty of the collection, but adding depth of visual understanding for the visitor.  There are even gaming boards where visitors can play chess, drafts and another Norse board game whose name escapes me.

The chessmen themselves are not high art by any means, but they do exhibit a mysterious gravitas and a window into the ideology of the age that clearly fascinates.  Faces stare out at their game with expressions ranging from furtive suspicion to deep contemplation, investing the offices of bishop, queen and king with unquestionable wisdom, seriousness and a degree of serenity.  Soldiers, on the other hand, tend to look cautiously out over shields, clutching their spears and swords tightly with what would be whitened knuckles of only the whole surfaces of the pieces weren’t the same tone.

The real appeal of the Lewis Chessmen seems to be their ability to civilise the past.  The soldiers’ mysterious Dark Age faces contrast with the sense of education, reason and patience which emanates from those of the civic and religious authorities.  And the function of this set (or three sets) – to entertain, pass time, socialise – contrasts with a storybook image of a dark, barbaric north.  This more civilised picture is added to by the broader context of artistry, trade and communication which the exhibition presents well.

But let’s not pretend that this is all about the Dark Age past.  For a start, a major element of the story concerns the discovery of the pieces in Lewis in the nineteenth century and their journey which ended in various museum collections.  Strikingly, the exhibition’s concern with the Lewis discovery story has resulted in the use of Gaelic throughout with English translation, including during the audio-visual presentation.  The sight of the written words, the occasional broad backdrops of the stone and green Lewis landscape on the walls, and the sound of the Gaelic language film leaves you with little doubt: this is a Gaelic, Scottish experience.

The sounds and sights of the Gaelic Western Isles are charming indeed, but their deployment here in this exhibition’s tour of Scotland does tend to make one question their purpose, particularly when it is freely admitted that Lewis at the time of the chessmen’s creation was, culturally speaking, Scandinavian.  It can’t be denied that this is viewed to a large extent as a homecoming tour and that conversely those pieces which normally reside in the British Museum are not at home there, as such.

Furthermore, the Lewis Chessmen Unmasked, supported by the Scottish Government, has a thing or two to say about contemporary Scotland.  This is a Scotland which embraces its past and its cultural diversity.  It says ‘anyone in Scotland can be Scottish’, but it also suggests positive discrimination towards the Gaelic world or an ideal of it.  It even looks north to Norway, the last-man-standing in Alex Salmond’s ‘Arc of Success’.

The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked is in Aberdeen until 8th January 2011.  This blog commends it to you.

Art and Claymation pave the Road to Hell in Aberdeen

Sorry I missed you: Wallace and Gromit

Intentions, intentions, what is it they say about them?  The Comely Banking Crisis drifted north along the granite-paved road to Aberdeen for a weekend in the glimmering Silver City, taking a turn (just the one is required) about Union Street, and the same for Belmont Street.

I really won’t have a bad word said about the place.  (Well, one or two maybe, but that’s it.)  There’s plenty there to entertain, and to prove it, here are two notable things I didn’t do:

1. Frances Walker – Place Observed in Solitude,  Aberdeen Art Gallery

You’ve got to hand it to Aberdeen Art Gallery.  Even if you’re just running in for an urgent usage of their toilet or a last minute panick-bought birthday card, you can’t help but notice that this a beautiful space, well managed, with a magnificent collection.  I really like the way their contemporary collection is the main focus of the building and the first thing that greets you as you enter, despite a decent collection of older works.

The gallery is worth a visit just to look at Francis Bacon’s disturbing but brilliant portrait of some pope or other (a study after Velázquez’s Portrait of “Innocent” X – see what I did there?) or the sublime horror of Ken Currie’s Gallowgate Lard.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s well worth the day-trip to Aberdeen from Edinburgh or Glasgow just to see these two paintings.

The temporary exhibitions here also tend to be outstanding.  I was recently blown away by Ron Mueck’s giant or tiny but otherwise freakishly accurate human figures lounging around in their underwear or pajamas.  The current special exhibition is a celebration of Frances Walker’s 80th birthday and is apparently the first showing of works from all the periods of her career.  So going by this background, the Walker exhibition promised a lot.  I never made it.

2. Wallace and Gromit ‘Animated Adventures’, Satrosphere Science Centre

OK, it looks as though this one is aimed at the kids, mainly, but a couple of points should defy any reason-toting adults who may wish to claim this is anything less than great.  You get to see real hand-made sets from Curse of the Wear-Rabbit – no mean promise.  And Satrosphere also promises to provide an interactive experience which allows visitors to create and animate their own characters and a special exhibit on the process of stop motion animation.  It’s sponsored by Shell, but – hey – this is Aberdeen!  I never made it.

Excuses? I had to go to a wedding and a birthday dinner, so really, duty called and won the day over art.  But I’m not afraid to admit that I spent some time poncing about in the new-ish Peckham’s on Union Street with a notebook and a coffee and, much worse still, sauntering around a certain new shopping centre near the train station.  I wasn’t even waiting for my train while doing the latter, so shame is in the air.  Oh, mañana!

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